Sand and Ash 9: Indecision

A difficult decision means there are more questions to ask.

— Kyōti proverb

Uncomfortably aware that he had been agonizing over the feathered combs for an hour, Rutejìmo couldn't walk away. He had gotten his choices down to three pieces, each one as beautiful as the others. They were arranged on a cheap white cloth spread out over a splintered board that made up the stall's counter. Unfortunately, despite staring at them for an hour he couldn't choose one or even two of them.

He tapped the cloth next to the first choice, a white comb with bright red feathers. He pictured Mapábyo wearing it, though he felt an uncomfortable pressure around his heart whenever he imagined her in any detail.

“A lovely choice,” said the older woman behind the counter. Sitting on an old crate, she spoke in the same flowery tone that she greeted him an hour before and, somehow, that made him feel guiltier for taking so long. “It will look lovely in your pretty girl's hair.”

Rutejìmo pulled back his hand. He didn't have a girl. He didn't even have a female friend beyond Chimípu and maybe Mapábyo. He wasn't even sure why he was standing at the stall, trying to make a choice over jewelry. Kiríshi's words echoed in his mind and he shook his head to clear it.

The second comb, a plain-looking one with brown teeth and feathers that reminded him of Shimusògo, would have been the obvious choice for Chimípu. Over the years, he had given her little gifts to show his appreciation for saving his life or simply running slow enough for him to keep up. It was small and insignificant, but Chimípu kept every gift he had ever given her on the shelves in her cave.

His lips pressed into a thin line. Chimípu had become his big sister when Desòchu stopped treating Rutejìmo as a brother years ago. It still left a sour taste in the back of his mouth, a reminder that he wasn't good enough for his sibling. The event at the fountain was one more example of how Desòchu continued to pull away from Rutejìmo and treated him as a stranger instead of family.

He glanced at his last choice knowing he would never buy it. For three years now, he had seen it on the old lady's table. The dark colors of the comb contrasted sharply with the white cloth and the other combs. The black and blue swirls along the bone ended with a single feather tied at one end with horse hair. It was the colors of the night, which ensured that very few people would even consider purchasing it. Whenever he saw it, though, he thought of Mikáryo.

“Excuse me, Great Shimusògo.”

Rutejìmo looked up.

“We are coming to sundown, and I need to pack up soon.” She waved to the stalls around her, most of them already partially disassembled. There were only a few final shoppers left strolling through the lane. In less than an hour, the street would be empty and hollow.

He sighed. “How much again?”

Her hazy, green eyes narrowed for a moment before the smile came back with just enough tension he could tell it was faked. “Eighteen for one, two for thirty-four. Three for forty-eight. Same as it has been every time you ask and every time you've purchased from me before.” He could tell she was talking through her smile from the way she hissed.

Returning his gaze to the combs, he ran his fingertips along the feathers of the black one. He couldn't choose because he didn't know why he was buying them. He should buy the red one for Mapábyo since Kiríshi gave him the coins, but when he had the choices before him, the answer wasn't obvious.

“If you tell me about your girl, maybe I can help?”

He shook his head. “I-I don't know.”

“You don't know your girl?” He could hear the question in her voice and felt his cheeks warming. “You've always bought my pretties for her,” she tapped the middle comb. “Though you keep staring at this one,” her wrinkled finger waved over the darker comb. “A forbidden love? A girl of the moon?”

Rutejìmo never realized how observant the old woman was. He shivered in fear and struggled to speak. “I… I don't have one. A girl, that is.”

The old woman tapped on the third comb. “You've been looking at this one for many seasons. Maybe if you give it to her, she will finally be yours?”

He felt a tear in his eyes. “I-I haven't seen her since…” He coughed to clear his throat. “Ten years.”

“A long time for a shikāfu.”

Rutejìmo nodded. “So Desòchu says.”

“Maybe time for a new girl? I'm thinking,” the woman clicked her tongue before tapping the red one. “This one, right? The new girl in your life?”

He snorted and shrugged. “I don't know. Her mother gave me some money to buy something, but…”

The old woman smirked and pushed the red comb toward him. “Then you should buy this one… and only this one.”

Rutejìmo frowned and looked at her. She was right but somehow he resisted.

“Just trust an old woman, okay? Buy this, and I give it to you for sixteen.”

He stared at her for a long moment, torn and indecisive. He dug his hand into his pocket and grabbed the two heavy coins. They scraped against each other. He toyed with them and stared at the red comb.

Just as he stared to pull out his money, he felt an icy presence wash past him. He looked at the old woman, but she was glaring over his shoulder, following some movement from his right to his left.

Rutejìmo spun around and caught a brief glimpse of a herd of black horses that had trotted by. Their hooves made no noise on the flagstones nor could he hear their breath or the whisk of their tails. The herd moved in a pool of silence, formed by the dying conversions. None of the clans who gained power from Tachìra would ride a black horse.

“Herds of the Chobìre,” muttered the old woman.

His heart beat faster and watched the silent horses head up the street. It was a frantic pounding, matched by a sudden tightness in his chest. The last time he had seen black horses, Mikáryo stood next to him.

Sweat prickled on his brow. He leaned to the side for a better look down the street. Normally, desert clans worked their names into the reins, saddles, and sashes. He tried to spot any letters, but he only spotted a few flashes of dark blue fabric before the silent mares disappeared into the crowds.

Rutejìmo glanced down at his tazágu. It was original Mikáryo's weapon and it had a similar blue wrapped around the hilt.

Setting his jaw, he took a step after the horses.

A thin hand clamped down on his wrist. Rutejìmo jumped and stared down at it, trying to puzzle out the wrinkled fingers that griped him tightly.

“Great Shimusògo,” said the old woman without a hint of humor, “you will buy something. For my time, if for no other reason.”

He lifted his gaze to her face. He saw nothing but the predatory glare of a vendor who wasted time with a man who couldn't make a decision. Gulping, he looked away to see the horses disappearing in the crowds.

Frantic to catch up and see if it was Mikáryo, he dug into his pockets. Grabbing both coins, he threw one on the table and pawed at the combs. His fingers caught two of them, the black and the red one. He tried to separate them, but they were caught on each other. He tried to shake it free, but they wouldn't fall apart.

He looked up to see only one horse still visible through the press of people.

The woman's hand tightened on his grip.

Biting on his lip, he threw the other coin on the table.

She released his hand, and he shoved both combs into his pocket.

“A pleasure doing—” but her words were lost as Rutejìmo ran after the horses.

He didn't know if the horses were Mikáryo's or not, but something drew him down the street after the silent equines. The large creatures filled the narrow street, but they moved quickly and gracefully. They seemed to flow around the crowds while he struggled to force his way past every person.

By the time he reached the end of the street, only the rising din of conversation and haggling marked their passing.

Rutejìmo raced after the horses, ducking through the crowds. He wanted to accelerate fast enough to summon Shimusògo, but didn't dare use magic within city limits. While the death threat may have been for show, he didn't want to risk the Wamifūko's goodwill by pushing his luck.

At the next intersection, he almost missed the horses' passing.

At the one after that, he lost the trail.

Frustrated, he turned in a circle, looking for some hint of the dark herd. When he found none, his shoulders slumped. He considered returning to the other Shimusògo, to deliver the comb he accidentally grabbed to Mapábyo.

Rutejìmo pulled his purchases out and held them in his hand. The red one had tangled up with the black one. Now that he wasn't trying to catch the horses, it only took a second to pull them apart. With a sigh, he eased the red one into a pocket.

He started to put the other comb away, but ten years of dreaming stopped him. He clutched his hand around the tines. He could find Mikáryo, if it was her. It wouldn't take long. Just a quick visit to give her a gift and then head back to the others.

With a nod that felt only a little forced, he headed toward a family packing their wares into a wagon. One of them may have seen where the horses had gone.